Can fascists take over America?

Tyler Cowen thinks they can’t:

American fascism cannot happen anymore because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It is simply too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of. No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.” The net result is they simply can’t control enough of the modern state to steer it in a fascist direction.

This yields a new defense of Big Government, which is harder to take over, and harder to “turn bad,” than many a smaller government. Surely it ought to give us pause that the major instances of Western fascism came right after a time when government was relatively small, and not too long after the heyday of classical liberalism in Europe, namely the late 19th century. No, I am not blaming classical liberalism for Nazism, but it is simply a fact that it is easier to take over a smaller and simpler state than it is to commandeer one of today’s sprawling bureaucracies.

This argument is only moderately convincing. The bureaucratic argument is pretty weak historically. In fact, there is work that suggests that high levels of social capital and the presence of a rationalized bureaucracy made it easy for the Nazis to take over. The argument would have been stronger if Cowen focused on the ways in which the federal system and the decentralization of hard power in America provides real barriers to countrywide fascistic rule (but he is an economist, so “size of government” is a readily available metric).

The other weakness in the argument is that Cowen sounds like he has in mind “Rule of Law Fascists” (at least at the beginning). But by definition, these chaps would probably engage in a lot of extra-constitutional means of gaining and maintaining power. And at that point, the only stumbling bloc would be the hard power dispersed in the states.

American has a fairly decentralized system of internal projection of coercive capacity (police units are run by states, counties, and cities). These security units could be commandeered by would-be dissenters to challenge a fascist in Washington (states would presumably also race to control all the American military’s weaponry within their borders). America is also too culturally heterogenous to enable a quick takeover by fascists. The fascists would first have to kill a significant number of not only non-European-Americans (going by the demographics of current American fascists) but also a lot of European-Americans before they could install their rule. In the process of doing so, they would begin to undermine the very ethnic and cultural basis of their fascistic rule.

A high level of ethnic (and ideological) heterogeneity would therefore mitigate against a rapid rise and consolidation of fascist rule.

Finally, while the risk of an outright fascist takeover is remote, the likelihood of ever-spreading pockets of fascism in the American state is very real. Here, too, decentralization plays a role. Because of America’s highly decentralized coercive capacities, pockets of unchecked predatory authoritarianism (fascism-lite, if you will) continue to exist throughout the country — see here, here and here. These pockets persist, in part, because the federal government is considered to be fairly faithful to the ideals of the American constitution. So while fascists may not take over the federal government, they can certainly control local police departments, or even pockets of the federal bureaucracy.

Urban Bias on Steroids: The Case of Thailand

This is from the Economist:

The National Village Community Fund, which has allocated 500,000 baht each to almost 80,000 villages for rural projects, is now administered by the ministry of interior. The state’s Special Financial Institutions, which provide rural credit, are now regulated by the central bank, having previously been the playthings of provincial politicians. These days, if you wait for money from Bangkok, “you’ll wait forever,” says Mr Suradech.

His complaint is confirmed by a startling calculation. The World Bank reckons that over 70% of Thailand’s public expenditure in 2010 benefited Greater Bangkok, home to 17% of the country’s population. In no other economy with a comparable level of income is government spending as skewed, say the bank’s economists.

Rather than lift the shopping power of the rural masses, the junta has aimed to boost spending by tourists and urbanites. It has cut taxes markedly for the relatively few businesses and people that pay them. It has also succeeded in doubling the number of visitors from China to 10m a year.

Remember the red shirts and yellow shirts and how they managed to cripple Bangkok?

H/T Tyler Cowen.

Tyler Cowen on the Contours of Partisanship in American Politics

Tyler Cowen has an interesting post on the contours of partisan politics in America. In the post he argues that at the state-level Republican politics and governance is superior to the Democratic variety:

This superior performance stems from at least two factors.  First, Republican delusions often matter less at the state and local level, and furthermore what the core Republican status groups want from state and local government is actually pretty conducive to decent outcomes.  The Democrats in contrast keep on doling out favors and goodies to their multitude of interest groups, and that often harms outcomes.  The Democrats find it harder to “get tough,” even when that is what is called for, and they have less of a values program to cohere around, for better or worse.

Second, the states with a lot of Democrats are probably on average harder to govern well (with some notable Southern exceptions).  That may excuse the quality of Democratic leadership to some degree, but it is not an entirely favorable truth for the broader Democratic ethos. Republicans, of course, recognize this reality.  Even a lot of independent voters realize they might prefer local Republican governance, and so in the current equilibrium a strong majority of governors, state legislatures, and the like are Republican.

Thomas Pepinsky looked under the hood of this argument and found this:

Those high functioning states (he cites this report) are North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, and Iowa.

It is not obvious to me why Republicans would not look to the entire map of places that the GOP controls state government.

Maybe one clue is that those five states are among the whitest states in the country.

As an exercise, let’s ponder what “They think the rest of America should be much more like those places” means.

Cowen also has an interesting theory of why expats foreigners tend to lean Democratic:

It is easier for intelligent foreigners to buy more heavily into the Democratic stories. They feel more comfortable with the associated status relations, and furthermore foreigners are less likely to be connected to American state and local government, so they don’t have much sense of how the Republicans actually are more sensible in many circumstances.any circumstances.

I don’t know what to make of this. I’ve never lived in a fully Republican controlled state. All I know is that Republican governors and legislatures have a knack for cutting taxes at the expense of essential public goods — like schools in Kansas or drinkable water in Michigan; or refusing to accept federal dollars to finance healthcare for their poor voters in the name of ideological purity. I also know that for all their talk of ideological purity when it comes to social spending, Republicans’ preference for the size of the social safety net is conditional on the proportion of the population that is of European descent.

This is not to say that Republican elites are evil or anything. They are simply self-interested. Instead, it speaks to the awkwardness of the Republican coalition.

In Cowen’s language, in the current historical moment I see Democrats as a coalition that peddles status and some goodies to boot. Republican elites, on the other hand, traffic almost exclusively in status, while opting for lower taxes and fewer regulations for elites. This may work during boom times. But in tough economic times a shared status (codified by say, race) might not be enough to convince the working poor that they are natural political allies with either anti-tax business owners or the editors of the National Review.

And if we are honest, it doesn’t help that we’ve just had 7+ years under a president from a historically low status group in the American context.

Enter Donald John Trump.

Angus Deaton wins the Economics Nobel Prize

Angus Deaton of Princeton University has won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Tyler Cowen over at MR summarized Angus Deaton’s immense contribution to the study of consumption, human welfare, and development:

A brilliant selection.  Deaton works closely with numbers, and his preferred topics are consumption, poverty, and welfare.  “Understanding what economic progress really means” I would describe as his core contribution, and analyzing development from the starting point of consumption rather than income is part of his vision.  That includes looking at calories, life expectancy, health, and education as part of living standards in a fundamental way.  I think of this as a prize about empirics, the importance of economic development, and indirectly a prize about economic history.

Think of Deaton as an economist who looks more closely at what poor households consume to get a better sense of their living standards and possible paths for economic development.  He truly, deeply understands the implications of economic growth, the benefits of modernity, and political economy.  Here is a very good non-technical account of his work on measuring poverty (pdf), one of the best introductions to his thought.

More on this here.

Deaton’s book, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality is a must read for those interested in development.

Some readers of the blog may recall Deaton’s summer square off with Rwanda’s Health Minister Agnes Binagwaho over his comments on the Boston Review blog.

Deaton’s selection is a timely nod to the study of BIG PICTURE development.

Quick Hits

1. Lunch with the FT: Mikhail Khodorkovsky

2. Blattman on Russian politics, and other stuff.

3. Tyler Cowen asks a rather odd question….  “Are anthropologists better than you think?” My simple answer is yes. I wish it were possible for everyone in the world working in development to take Jim Ferguson’s Economic Anthropology graduate seminar (or simply read this book), or David Laitin’s Political Culture class which includes works from brilliant anthropologists, both old and new. Plus my better half and a few close friends are anthropologists; and I can tell you from first hand experience that once you get through the jargon the field emerges as the mother social science [although in characteristic fashion none of the anthropologists I know would ever admit this].

4. Governance is hard. And now it is ISIS’ turn to find out.

5. 50 Shades of Poor: Who exactly qualifies as “middle class” in Congo?

Evidence of aid effectiveness may reduce charitable giving for some

Ever wondered why so many charitable campaigns often lack contextual information on their aid recipients? Well, it turns out charitable groups might just be responding to some of their contributors’ need for as little information as possible, the result of which are the often simplistic silly campaigns to help starving people in nameless war-torn countries in the developing world.

According to Karlan and Wood in a paper on donor responses to information on aid effectiveness (it is a direct mail experiment):

We test how donors respond to new information about a charity’s effectiveness. Freedom from Hunger implemented a test of its direct marketing solicitations, varying letters by whether they include a discussion of their program’s impact as measured by scientific research. The base script, used for both treatment and control, included a standard qualitative story about an individual beneficiary. Adding scientific impact information has no effect on whether someone donates, or how much, in the full sample. However, we find that amongst recent prior donors (those we posit more likely to open the mail and thus notice the treatment), large prior donors increase the likelihood of giving in response to information on aid effectiveness, whereas small prior donors decrease their giving. We motivate the analysis and experiment with a theoretical model that highlights two predictions. First, larger gift amounts, holding education and income constant, is a proxy for altruism giving (as it is associated with giving more to fewer charities) versus warm glow giving (giving less to more charities). Second, those motivated by altruism will respond positively to appeals based on evidence, whereas those motivated by warm glow may respond negatively to appeals based on evidence as it turns off the emotional trigger for giving, or highlights uncertainty in aid effectiveness.

They also add that:

Our finding that smaller prior donors respond to information on charitable effectiveness by donating less frequently and in smaller amounts is consistent with other research showing that emotional impulses for giving shut down in the presence of analytical information. Indeed, controlled laboratory experiments have produced insights that suggest that emotionally triggered generosity may be dampened by appeals that include statistical or deliberative information. For example, people donate less to feed a malnourished child when statistics that put this child in the larger context of famine in Africa are mentioned. 

H/T Marginal Revolution.

Introducing the Marginal Revolution University

Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution, have teamed up to produce MRUniversity, an online university that will be offering courses to the general public.



Their first course on development economics is already live. You can access it here.